Getting close to Edwin?

Reconstruction of the helmet in the Staffordshire Hoard (copyright Birmingham Museums)

The April edition of Current Archaeology has just arrived and contains a feature on the helmet above. Readers of this blog will be aware of the amazing hoard of some 4,600 gold and silver pieces discovered at Hammerwich near Lichfield 10 years ago, which is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon bullion items yet discovered. Around a third of the pieces in the hoard relate to a single magnificent helmet, and the pictures above show the results of years of research to work out what the original may have looked like.  This is a reconstruction based upon the many fragments in the hoard.

Much of the helmet was missing, but significantly the distinctive cheek pieces and the setting for the crest were present to give strong clues of the overall shape and design. The crest itself was made of some organic material but whether it was horsehair as reconstructed or some other material is unknown.  Many of the decorative panels were also in the hoard, allowing a good attempt at overall reconstruction. What we end up with is a superb example of a helmet that can only have been the property of someone who was one of the very wealthiest men in Anglo-Saxon England in the first half of the 7th Century. This is the very time when Queen Æthelburh was alive.

The helmet was clearly designed for display. Even compared with the five other Anglo-Saxon helmets known, including the well-known Sutton Hoo helmet, it stands out. It is hard to believe that this was not a helmet worn by a king. Moreover, as we believe that the Sutton Hoo helmet belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia who was styled Bretwalda or Overlord of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, one could equally believe that the Staffordshire Hoard helmet belonged to a king of equal standing.

Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet (copyright Trustees of British Museum)

What we have of the Staffordshire Hoard helmet are fragments. But research concludes that it was almost certainly a functional helmet with a steel core that is now lost. It was designed to be worn in battle and just as with the lavish sword fittings that you can see in this earlier blog post, the warrior who wore it was seeking to stand out.  This was battle display of the most magnificent kind.  But we can see that the helmet has been quite literally torn apart and only decorative elements made of gold and silver survive.  The most likely explanation for this is that this helmet was war booty captured in battle by the Mercians.  The principal royal centre of the Kingdom of Mercia was at Tamworth, only some 10 miles from where the Staffordshire Hoard was found. 

One might think that a magnificent and probably highly symbolic helmet like this would have been treasured as a trophy of victory and re-used by whoever captured it.  But that is clearly not what happened.  It has been torn apart as if the intention was that it should be destroyed.  The destruction appears to be ritual, as if the helmet, like its former owner, needed to be “killed”.  There is clearly a story here, even if we have to stray from strict archaeological facts into the realms of romance to perceive it.  

The specialists in Anglo-Saxon art styles who worked on the reconstruction have placed the helmet in the first half of the 7th Century.  The fact that the fragments ended up in Mercia suggests that it was war booty captured by the Mercian army.  From the dates, the most likely candidate for who led this victorious army was King Penda, who ruled c.625-655.

Penda was a pagan at a time when all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were beginning to embrace Christianity.  This is the time when Princess Æthelburh of Kent married King Edwin of Northumbria with the explicit intention of converting him and his kingdom to Christianity, which she did.  So there was an ideological dimension to the wars that Penda waged against Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria.  He famously slew two kings in battle,  Æthelburh’s husband Edwin at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster in October 633 and Edwin and Æthelburh’s nephew Oswald at Maserfield (probably near Oswestry) in August 642.

Could the Staffordshire Hoard helmet have belonged to either Edwin or Oswald?  It is hard to believe that a helmet of such magnificence did not belong to a king, so this seems highly likely.  If so, can we narrow this down?  Of the two, Edwin was explicitly linked to Roman Christianity through his wife.  Oswald was brought up on the Island of Iona in the Irish tradition and did not look to Rome for support.  But both were considered by Bede to have exercised “imperium” or power over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which later was given the term Bretwalda or Overlord.  One could easily believe that the Staffordshire Hoard helmet belonged to a king who wanted to be seen and to stand out as the Bretwalda of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  But this gets us no closer to whose helmet it was.  It is just possible that the ostentatiously Roman style of the helmet tilts the view in Edwin’s favour, for his conversion was publicly supported and encouraged by the Pope in Rome.  A helmet of this style could have been seen as a very ostentatious display of the support of Rome. 

Ritually killing Edwin’s helmet after the battle of Hatfield Chase could have been a very public act by Penda claiming the superiority of his pagan gods over the Christian God of Edwin.  Who knows?  This is hardly the stuff of science, but there are times when a little romance helps to bring history alive.  One can imagine Æthelburh bidding farewell to Edwin, dressed in this helmet as he led his army from York to meet Penda at Hatfield Chase.  Within days, when news of the battle reached her, she was fleeing for her life with her children back to Kent.  And so she came to be granted by her brother, the King of Kent, the estate at Lyminge, where she founded a monastic community and lived for the rest of her life.  It is the church of that monastic community that we are now seeking to re-excavate as part of the Pathways to the Past project.

You can read more about the Staffordshire Hoard here.

If you would like to see the reconstructed helmet and items from the hoard, you can do so at Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.  There is a reconstructed helmet in each museum, and the hoard has been split between the two locations. 

Whether you choose to believe that the helmet was probably Edwin’s is entirely up to you.  But at the very least, he would have worn something very like this.  So whatever you conclude about who may have worn this helmet into battle, we can be very clear that this gives us yet another insight into the Age of Bling that was 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England.  


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